STBYM-best-of-2010

Medieval Math as Post-apocalyptic Technology

Post-apocalyptic fiction is full of scenarios where survivors sift through the bones and dust to uncover high-tech treasures they don't really understand. In "Beneath the Planet of the Apes," it was an atom bomb worshiped as a god. In "The Prince of Nothing" trilogy it was a laser weapon regarded as a magical spear. Recently I posted about the union of science and theology in Dante's 14th century classic "Inferno" (you can read it here) and it got me thinking: Is Western medieval mathematics analogous to the dusted-off super technology in our bleaker works of sci-fi? So it seems.

Churches Pray for Energy Star Certification

Running a church is hard work. After all, a house of worship is a port in the storm to members of its community. Services, soup kitchens, bible studies and confessionals have to be held as planned for each and every needy soul. All that outreach consumes not only the time and commitment of members and staff, but also a fair amount of energy. With utility costs averaging $1.66 per square foot per year, the First Parish had enough. Find out what the church did inside.

Ball Lightning II: Is it all in your head?

Last week's post on ball lightning covered the basics -- sightings, reports and deaths chalked up to the glowing orb. But what if some of those same occurrences were really just hallucinations? While Georg Richmann, ball lightning's unlucky 18th-century victim, might still argue for his case in particular, other, less tactile sightings could prove harder to back up. According to a recent study by Joseph Peer and Alexander Kendl at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, ball lightning might be all in your head.

Ball Lightning: Silicone, Plasma or Aliens, Perhaps?

Lightning isn't the kind of thing you want to see inside -- especially when it's a glowing orb ambling through the window and pulsing about. But that's exactly how ball lightning (purportedly) rolls. And according to the excellent HowStuffWorks article on the subject, such a seemingly freakish phenomenon isn't even all that rare: 30 out of 150 people believe they've seen it.

Prosthetic Limbs Become More Energy Efficient

Energy is ubiquitous, which makes it a beautiful blog topic. Once you start thinking about energy as more than just oil or solar power, but rather as the input that powers all systems, a world of topics opens up for you. If you're like me, you also start thinking about all the ways in which energy is lost. You just lost some reading this. I just lost some writing this. For an amputee, all that lost energy can add up. Consider that people without prosthetic limbs dissipate a significant amount of energy while walking, mainly between strides, according to Steven Collins and Arthur Kuo, the developers of a micro-processor-controlled artificial foot they described in a February 2010 PLoS ONE paper.

Fifteen Years and One Synthetic Cell Later

We interrupt this programming to inform you that a living, self-replicating bacterial cell has been made synthetically. The idea of life as chemistry has just scored some serious cred. If Stanley Miller and Harold Urey had lived to see today, they'd probably be pretty excited. Back in 1952, the two scientists took a stab at recreating Earth's early atmosphere in a beaker, by adding water, hydrogen, ammonia and methane and then zapping it with an electrical charge. Boom! Amino acids, some of the building blocks of life and protein precursors, soon appeared. Within the booming field of synthetic biology, the folks at the J. Craig Venter Institute took a slightly different approach. Keep reading to learn what it was.

Bee Attacks and a Sri Lankan King

An attack by the 5th-century Sri Lankan King Kasyapa I's armed men would have been frightening. But so would one by Sri Lankan honeybees -- their stingers three times the length of their European counterparts. Attacks of the latter sort have become a bit of a problem at the Sigiriya rock fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and one of Sri Lanka's top tourist destinations.